Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent – March 21, 2021

Sergio Rodriguez, Vicar

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, the one who draws all people through his death. Amen.

“But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people”

Jeremiah uttered these words of the new covenant as a word of promise to a people uprooted from their land and their mundane life with God. “I will be their God and they shall be my people,” bespeaks to the people that after this exile, God will once again commit himself to them. Even in Babylon, this word of promise guided the exiles through their own Lenten-style journey towards a return to some semblance of a life with God. “I will their God and they shall be my people,” stresses a type of renewal based off a reciprocal relationship with God in love.

As we ourselves start to “congregate” in space where we nurture and develop relationship, the type of covenantal love that Jeremiah announces to us this day provides a way to know God and each other intimately. “I will their God and they shall be my people,” directs us to consider our neighbor as jointly-embraced by God and by us. During this our Lenten-exile and as our body politic is slowly being renewed, the words of the new covenant impart in our hearts God’s gracious embrace so that we may be formed to embrace others through intimate relationships.

When Jeremiah announced that, “days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and Judah,” he announced that the time of the exile’s relational uprootedness would end. No longer would they defined by their inability to live into their covenantal relationship with God and with neighbor. “I will put my law within them and I will write it on their hearts,” announced an intensification of God’s covenantal love; the substance would be similar to that of the Mosaic covenant but the quality would be different. The story of God’s Law, i.e. the story of Torah, is a story of God’s favor towards his people and how in love, God’s gracious character would be shown through them.  Instead of injecting pure legalism, the new covenant personally renewed the hearts and minds of the exiles so that God’s transformative favor would be within them. This new covenant would so internalize the heart of the torah story within each individual that every person would know intimately who God is and who they are called to be. They were not just to intellectually assent to the insight that God is gracious and merciful but they were to simply be as God is. Hence why Jeremiah connects covenantal renewal with relational knowing: “No longer shall they teach one another, or say to one another, Know the Lord, for they shall all know me.” Through this new covenant, God comes to know us and we God in a more intimate fashion, in love; a love that knows all things, bears all things, believes all things. By abiding in such knowledge, God renews our relationships to the same degree; we come to know others and others come to know us as God knows us; embrace others in love for through love we have been embraced by God.

When I consider this gift of the new covenant as a gift that renews our relationships in love, I find Robin Wall Kimmerer’s insight of love as a gift that keeps on giving as one highlights the reciprocal character of our renewed relationships. In her book, Braiding Sweetgrass, Kimmerer recounts that growing up in poverty, she never had the opportunity to purchase a gift for her Father. Rather every Father’s Day, she and her siblings went out into the fields to collect (and of course devour) wild strawberries for her mother to use to bake a cake. Her Father used to say, “that was the best possible present he received.” The gift of course wasn’t the cake itself but as Kimmerer says, “our gift was time and attention and care and red-stained fingers. Heart berries, indeed.” The earth would provide such a gift, she would hand that gift off and that gift would be handed off as strawberry shortcake. Robin realized that the giftedness of life would open the way for reciprocal relationships; love that takes time to grow and flourish. God’s covenant comes to us as wild strawberries and sweetens our life with the richness of God’s grace so that we be handed off to others, to feed others in love. As we consider how hatred crimes against folks of Asian descent has risen significantly during this pandemic, the most recent manifestation of this hate brough 8 lives to an end in Atlanta, we once more open our hands to receive the gift of love that puts an end to hate. When we take the time to flag hate-filled speech on social media, when we correct our neighbor’s misconceptions about the variety of peoples of Asian descent, we are living fully into the knowledge of God as the God who’s love comes to us as a covenantal gift.

When the Greek came wishing to see Jesus, they wanted to enter into a relational knowing with God through him. They wanted to live fully into the knowledge that this Jesus who embraced a Samaritan Woman, healed a Blind Man from birth and raised his beloved friend, Lazarus from the dead, is opening a way for all to be in relationship with God through neighbor. Such actions have led to this point in Jesus’ ministry. God so loved the world that God’s gave up the only begotten, Jesus Christ, so that through him the whole world would be embraced by God; the Greeks want this embrace, we need this embrace of love. Jesus knows the consequences of such a loving embrace and understands that the rulers of the age are plotting against him. Knowing this, knowing the depth and complexity of human love and hate, Jesus, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it reminds just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit,” as a way of indicating the givenness of love. It is as if Jesus is saying, “As a grain of wheat is planted in the soil, so shall I be set in the tomb upon my death. But such a death embraces the world; the world in need of love. My love shall embrace human death and suffering. My love shall abound as a gift to all in the depth of brokenness.” So when the Father speaks to the crowds that he has glorified Jesus and will glorify him again, we hear God say to us that through this love in the death and resurrection of his Son, he shall become our God and we God’s people. I shall put my gift of love within you and write Incarnate Love upon your hearts.

When this new covenant comes to us, God embraces us through Jesus so that we may live fully into calling as Christ’s body; learning to live into the obedience of faith. This word obedience at first glace seems to preclude the ideal of relational knowing and covenantal embrace. That somehow obedience means blind and unquestioning submission. I would rather say that as we live into this new covenant of love, we become like Christ; like grains of wheat that must be planted in the depth of human existent in order to transform human existence through love. When we begin to seriously embrace others and put an end to hatred against vulnerable people, women, folks of Asian descent, we start to know what obedience of faith actually means; bearing all-embracing love to neighbors in need to the giftedness of love; in need of reciprocal relationships that transform people to have open arms and sincere hearts.

As we navigate through the exilic time into the resurrection of our life together in its fullness, God imparts in our hearts the gift of the new covenant through faith. This covenantal grace embraces the depth of our need by moving our hearts and minds to know God’s love. By abiding in such knowledge, we come to see other and know each other in reciprocity; we are gifts to each other; grains of wheat and wild strawberries all at once.  Yet this is the hour when Jesus Christ is glorified among us; through love and in love. Robin Kimmerer’s words remind us that we participate now in this glorification of Christ; a glorification that already is transforming our world in love, “A great longing is upon us to live again in a world made of gifts. I can scent it coming, like the fragrance of ripening strawberries rising on the breeze.”